SRI LANKA: The Ethnic Conflict
by Charles Gunawardena
Having lived in Britain for a few decades, I appreciate that its long tradition of democracy and respect for human rights predisposes its people to have sympathy for minority groups struggling against what they see as oppression and discrimination by majority communities. Having been a journalist, I am aware of the difficulties of reporting fairly on complex ethnic conflicts in unfamiliar societies. As a Sri Lankan, I have been concerned that reports and comments on the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka have sometimes tended to fall short of the highest standards of British journalism.
These considerations have impelled me to set down what is presented in this paper. It draws attention to some aspects of the Sri Lankan problem which seem to me to receive insufficient consideration. It suggests that certain journalistic practices should be used with greater care.
I hope these few pages will assist at least a few of those whose words, heard or read, have the power to influence the perceptions of millions to gain a better understanding of the tragic situation in which Sri Lankans of all communities are trapped.
(About the writer: I started work as a journalist in Sri Lanka in the 1950s, when for a few years I also reported on Sri Lanka as a stringer for The Economist, the Christian Science Monitor and Handelsblatt. I later handled information and press relations at Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry and as a diplomat in London and New Delhi. In the 1980s I was head of information at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. I was later on the staff of the South Commission and the Commission of Global Governance and helped prepare their reports. The second edition of my Encyclopedia of Sri Lanka was published in 2006 (http://www.srilanka-encyclopedia.com).
A potted history
Settlers from India’s north – today’s Sinhalese – and south – today’s Sri Lankan Tamils – have lived in the island for over two millennia. From ancient to medieval times, kings from India’s south occasionally invaded the country. This did not deter later Sinhalese kings from sending to South India for Tamil queens. The Sinhalese royal line ended with four kings from South India on the throne in succession in the last capital, Kandy. The British, who deposed the last in 1815, exiled him to South India.
All empires divide and rule. Britain’s treated the Tamils as almost equal to the Sinhalese. Tamil leaders joined Sinhalese colleagues in the early nationalist organisations. But as independence approached, these links were strained, and the Tamils demanded ‘fifty-fifty’: equal representation in the legislature for the minorities, as for the majority Sinhalese – over 70% of the people. The British-appointed constitutional commission turned this down, terming it "an artificial means to convert a majority into a minority".
Christian missionaries opened many more English schools in the Tamil north relative to population than in the Sinhalese south. At independence, the public service – the main employer – had proportionately many more Tamils than Sinhalese, especially in higher positions and in professional fields.
As late as 1959 the Universities Commission reported that the predominantly Tamil Jaffna district had a school equipped to teach science for entrance to university for every 15,000 of its population. The average figure for the 15 other most populous districts was one for every 118,000 people. The same report recorded that the proportion of Tamil university students relative to their population was ten times the proportion of Sinhalese university students relative to the proportion of Sinhalese in the population.
After independence, Tamils objected to corrective action to redress such anomalies. They charged the government with discrimination. Action to replace English, used by 10% of the people, with Sinhalese, used by over 70%, as the language of government brought protests that Tamil was not given the same status. Peaceful representations gave way to provocative agitation leading to violent incidents. Cries of oppression succeeded claims of discrimination.
Tamil leadership passed from moderates to militants. Demand for a separate state replaced that for a federal state. The militants sought help from their ethnic kin in India’s state of Tamil Nadu, home to over 50 million Tamils. Tamil Nadu gave them hospitality and funds. New Delhi, under Indira Gandhi, offered them training and arms, perhaps hoping to manipulate them for its own sub-regional ends. Rivalry among separatist groups saw the most ruthless, the LTTE, emerge the strongest, after much violence against rivals.
Sinhalese politicians, protecting their flank from rivals and back from extremists, dithered and delayed. Slow to offer concessions, they were slower to implement them. Ethnic riots took lives from time to time. The worst erupted in July 1983 in Colombo after the Tigers blew up 13 soldiers in Jaffna. The Government seemed unwilling or unable to protect the Tamil minority for several days. This event drove many Tamils to emigrate, swelling a diaspora that funded the Tigers, and the LTTE gained new strength.
Civil conflict turned to civil war. The Tigers won control over large areas of the north. When government forces were about to dislodge them from Jaffna, India, now under Rajiv Gandhi, intervened. He pressured Sri Lanka’s President Jayewardene into agreeing to merge the Northern and Eastern provinces, now a key Tiger demand, in exchange for getting the Tigers to disarm. India sent a Peacekeeping Force, which took on the Tigers when they refused to do so.
Over 1,000 Indian soldiers had been killed and over 2,000 wounded by the time Indian troops withdrew, at President Premadasa’s request. He thought he could buy off the Tigers by getting India out.
The LTTE started talks with him in 1989, only to abandon them and resume the war a year later. The Tigers also started talks with the next President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, in 1994, again to go back to war. She tried again, using Norway as a facilitator, to get talks going in 2000 – though she had lost an eye in a Tiger suicide attack in 1999. She failed.
But Ranil Wickremesinghe revived the initiative after becoming Prime Minister in 2001. The Tigers offered a ceasefire, formalised in 2002. That still holds, just, after recent battering.
A Tiger suicide bomber killed Rajiv Gandhi in Chennai in 1991. Another killed Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993. Still another nearly killed Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1999.
Ethnic composition of Sri Lanka
The last complete population census was taken in 1981; at later censuses the conflict prevented enumeration in areas the LTTE – the Tamil Tigers – controlled. It showed the following percentage distribution:
Sri Lankan Tamils 12.7
Indian Tamils 5.5
The term ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’ identifies people who have lived in the island just as long as the Sinhalese, predominantly in the north of the country. Indian Tamils are a different group, descendants of migrants recruited by Britain, as the colonial power, in the 19th and early 20th century as indentured labour for the plantations opened in the central hill country.
The Sinhalese are predominantly Buddhist, and the Tamils predominantly Hindu. Chrisitians are a minority in both groups but the proportion of Christians is higher among Sri Lankan Tamils. The conflict is, however, not between Hindus and Buddhists.
The ethnic conflict involves only the Sri Lankan Tamils, of whom the LTTE claims to be the sole authentic representative.
Reports about the ethnic conflict, including the legend accompanying maps, often give the proportion of Tamils in Sri Lanka as 18%, combining the Sri Lankan Tamils (12.7%) and the Indian Tamils (5.5%). This is misleading as the Indian Tamils are not a party to the conflict and the gross figure exaggerates the proportion of the population for whom the LTTE has demanded a separate state.
Geographical distribution of the population
Sri Lanka is made up of 9 provinces. Sri Lankan Tamils have been the overwhelming majority (92% in 1981) in the Northern Province. They have also been the largest ethnic group (42%) in the Eastern Province, sharing it with Muslims (32%) and Sinhalese (25%), who together form a majority in the province. Sinhalese form the majority in all the other seven provinces but both Tamils and Muslims are broadly distributed throughout the island. In 2001, the last year when a census was taken, Sri Lankan Tamils constituted 11% of the population in Colombo, 6.8% in the north-western district of Puttalam; 6.5% in Nuwara-Eliya, 5.5% in Matale and 4.1% in Kandy – all three in the central highlands – and 3.2% in the Gampaha district abutting Colombo.
Area claimed for a Tamil state (Eelam)
The LTTE claims both the Northern and Eastern Provinces as "traditional homelands" of Sri Lankan Tamils and has wanted them to form Eelam, a separate state. It argues that this is necessary for Tamils to avoid oppression by the Sinhalese majority within Sri Lanka.
The two provinces claimed for Eelam together constitute 29% of Sri Lanka’s land area. (Being in the dry zone of the country they are not the most productive.) A part of the Eastern Province is a coastal belt running a long way south on the eastern seaboard. Because of this, and the prevalence of indentations, the area claimed for Eelam accounts for a much greater share of the island’s coastline. A separate state of these dimensions could therefore claim an even greater share than 29% of Sri Lanka’s maritime resources.
The Tigers’ demand for a separate state on behalf of no more than 12.7% of the population is therefore a claim to a far larger share of the country’s resources than corresponds to its share of population. No responsible government could accept such a division of the country.
Emigration out of Sri Lanka since the 1981 census, prompted mainly by the ethnic conflict and undertaken also for economic reasons, has reduced the proportion of Sri Lankan Tamils in the population as a whole. Within the Northern and Eastern Provinces too, it has reduced the proportion of Sri Lankan Tamils relative to the population of these two provinces. The latter proportion has also been reduced by internal movement away from conflict zones. As no enumeration of people in much of the Northern and Eastern Provinces was possible at more recent censuses, the present proportion (of both categories) cannot be accurately reckoned.
Furthermore, by no means all 12.7% of Sri Lankans who are Sri Lankan Tamils have lived within the Northern and Eastern Provinces. A significant number have lived in multi-ethnic areas, principally in the capital city, Colombo, as well as other parts of the country.
Despite movement away from these areas after periods of acute tension, such as in July 1983 when there was widespread violence against Sri Lankan Tamils and their property, large numbers of them continue to work and live in Colombo and elsewhere outside the North and East.
Many Sri Lankan Tamils have chosen to move south to predominantly Sinhalese areas like Colombo to escape the privations and dangers of living in a conflict area. For families with children, these dangers include the risk of having them recruited, forcibly or otherwise, as fighters for the LTTE. The United Nations as well as international human rights organizations have severely criticized the LTTE for its continuing use of child soldiers, often abducted against their parents’ wishes.
Therefore the proportion of the population for whom a state of nearly 30% of the land area is claimed can fairly be estimated to be less, perhaps considerably less, than 12.7%.
There is no suggestion that if a state of Eelam is created, all or most or even many Sri Lankan Tamils now living outside the island’s North and East, either within Sri Lanka or abroad, will return to that territory.
I have yet to see or hear a report about the conflict in Sri Lanka that refers to these very significant aspects of the Tigers’ claim for a separate state.
Sri Lankan Tamil presence in Colombo
Sri Lankan Tamils in most walks of life, following numerous occupations, live and work and own property in Colombo.
Many Tamil professionals – accountants, architects, doctors, engineers – have Tamils as well as Sinhalese as clients. Many Sinhalese professionals similarly benefit from providing services to Tamil as well as Sinhalese clients. Sri Lankan Tamils are directors and senior executives of many companies, including the largest conglomerates. Business establishments owned by Sri Lankan Tamils are common in Colombo and many cities outside the North and East.
Sri Lankan Tamils have important positions in public bodies of many kinds. The last head of Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission, Dr Radhika Coomaraswamy, is an internationally recognised Sri Lankan Tamil lawyer. She was recently named the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Children in Armed Conflict. The newest senior appointment at the Peace Secretariat servicing the government’s pursuit of talks with the LTTE is of a Tamil professional, Ketheesvaran Loganathan, as Deputy Director. He was formerly the spokesman for the militant Tamil groups at the talks held in Thimpu, the Bhutanese capital, under Indian auspices in 1985. One of the three members of the Board of Governors of the island’s Central Bank is Chandi Chanmugam, a Tamil. The head of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, one of a few think-tanks in the country, Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, once a don at the University of Southampton, is a Tamil.
Sri Lanka’s previous Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, was a Sri Lankan Tamil who vigorously opposed the Tigers. His assassination is believed to be the work of the Tigers who considered him a Tamil traitor.
Sri Lanks’s cricketing hero, the spin bowler Muttiah Muaralitharan, is also a Tamil but from the Indian Tamil community, which is not a party to the conflict and does not support the LTTE’s secessionist demand.
two separate States, a federation or devolution within a unitary State?
These are three broad options available to resolve the ethnic conflict, with a variety of further choices within each option. For instance, a separate state for Sri Lankan Tamils could consist of the Northern Province and the Eastern Province in their entirety. This would mean that it includes the parts in which either Muslims or Sinhalese form the largest community. Or it could include only those parts of the Eastern Province in which Tamils are the largest group.
A federal constitution could also come in many shapes; the Indian federal system is different from that of the United States as well from the Swiss model. The powers enjoyed by the federal units – and by the central government – can vary.
Under a unitary constitution, which is what Sri Lanka has now, the degree of devolution of power from the centre can vary. One model of devolutions under a unitary constitution is Britain.
Sri Lanka’s former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are on record as favouring a federal arrangement of some kind.
President Mahinda Rajapakse favours devolution under a unitary constitution; he has reportedly agreed to study the Indian federal model.
In the talks held between the government and the LTTE so far, the nature of a final constitutional settlement has never been discussed. The LTTE has insisted on discussing only other, less significant, issues, such as the disarming of the Karuna faction.
The Karuna factor
Karuna is the nom-de-guerre of V. Muralitharan, a senior LTTE figure who commanded its forces in the Eastern Province. His break with the LTTE and its leader Prabhakaran in 2004 marked the most serious schism in Tiger history. It also questioned the Tiger claim to be the sole representatives of the Tamil people and encouraged further dissent and criticism of Tiger methods within the Tamil community.
Karuna accused the Tiger leadership, based in the Wanni region of the Northern Province and drawn mainly from the same province, of actively discriminating against the LTTE’s Eastern Province cadres. He asserted that too high a proportion of these cadres had been ordered to risk their lives in front-line duties in the Northern Province. (Traditionally, Tamils of the North have tended to look down their noses at Tamils in the East.)
Karuna, who reportedly had 6,000 fighters under his command, openly challenged Prabhakaran’s leadership and strategy. When the Karuna rebellion took place, the LTTE leadership took the position that it was an internal matter the LTTE itself would handle. In a pitched battle it claimed to have routed Karuna’s forces but Karuna survived with enough of his men to constitute a major irritant if not a formidable threat to the LTTE.
It is only recently, after its failure to eliminate the Karuna faction, that the LTTE has started to assert that it was the government’s responsibility to disarm Karuna’s forces as paramilitaries, citing a clause in the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) signed in 2002 which committed the government to disarm paramilitary groups (EPDP, PLOTE and EPRLF’s Suga subgroup) then enjoying the government’s support.
These groups were once militant Tamil groups allied to the LTTE that had turned against it because of its intolerance of other Tamil nationalist groups. Many leaders and members of such groups were killed by the LTTE. A few such groups eventually extended their support to the government.
After the CFA, the government honoured this commitment by insisting that these groups, up to then allowed to carry arms for their own protection, hand over their weapons.
The Karuna faction did not exist at the time the CFA was signed and so does not qualify as a paramilitary group under it. The LTTE’s insistence that the government disarms the Karuna faction amounts to the LTTE asking the government to fight the Tigers’ enemies.
What could be more bizarre? A political group that pursues an armed campaign against a sovereign state, resorting to countless acts of terrorism, is asking the same state to use its armed forces to put down a rebellion against the group. Where in the world has such an outrageous claim been entertained? Yet journalists seem to have treated this demand as if it were the most natural, reasonable and legitimate request made by a rebel group.
The Muslim factor
The largest concentration of Sri Lanka’s Muslim people has been in the Eastern Province, where they are the second largest ethnic group after Sri Lankan Tamils, with the Sinhalese as the third largest – or smallest but significant – group. They speak Tamil as most Muslims in Sri Lanka do. But they define their identity by their religion rather than the language they speak. Muslims have rejected attempts by some Tamil leaders to embrace them within a linguistic, Tamil-speaking community, fearing it would lead to dominance by the Tamils.
The LTTE itself has made no overtures of this kind to Muslims. It has treated them as enemies, just as much as it has treated Sinhalese, the majority community, as enemies. It has sought to justify hostility towards the Sinhalese by alleging discrimination and oppression. It has made no such charge against Muslims, a smaller minority. Yet, it has driven them out of the North. In the East, where many more Muslims live, they have refused to be intimidated despite repeated violence – all terrorist acts against innocent men, women and children, including people praying in their mosques.
The LTTE and democracy
The LTTE has never made claims to be democratic or admire democracy. It has always shown intolerance of dissenting opinion, not only within its ranks but within the Sri Lankan Tamil community as a whole. Within the organization, dissent means death. Only Karuna and some of his supporters have escaped this fate – so far.
Within the wider community the LTTE has assassinated hundreds of Tamils belonging to several other political groups. Many key figures in the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), once the principal party of the Tamils, have been assassinated – from Appapillai Amirthalingam MP, the TULF leader for several years, in 1989, to Neelan Tiruchelvam MP, a Harvard-trained lawyer with an international reputation in constitutional law and a staunch defender of human rights, in 1999.
Other members of the TULF were so intimidated that they, now appearing as the TNA or Tamil National Alliance, act as a proxy for the Tigers. The TULF’s elected leader, V. Ananthasangaree, has refused to cave in and toe the Tiger line. He remains, at grave risk, an independent Tamil voice against the LTTE.
The LTTE’s victims include Dr. Rajini Thiranagama, who taught anatomy at the University of Jaffna. A Tamil married to a Sinhalese, she was an LTTE supporter but, disillusioned by its abuse of human rights, helped found the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) and became a critic of abuses by all sides. She was shot dead by the Tigers while cycling to the university in 1989. In "No More Tears Sister," a film released by the National Film Board of Canada in 2005, her sister and others tell the story of a courageous champion of human rights.
Threat and intimidation continue apace, delivered by the LTTE, its agents and supporters. The latest prominent victim is Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole, a Tamil academic, who was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Jaffna, the premier university in the north and east. He had returned to Sri Lanka from the USA as he wanted his children to grow up in a Sri Lankan environment. The LTTE did not want him as he was known for his sturdy independence. Threats against him and his family, not directly from the LTTE but from its supporters, initially kept him from going from Colombo to Jaffna to take up his post. But the intimidation intensified. Amnesty International took up his case, to no avail. On 20 April he left Colombo with his family for an undisclosed destination to seek refuge abroad. Jaffna academics who were willing to welcome him have now been frightened into silence.
In a 1986 interview LTTE leader Prabhakaran made clear that in the Tamil state he was fighting to create, there would be only one party – his party. He said:
"The government of independent Eelam will be a socialist government. There will be only one party supported by the people. I do not, want a multi-party democracy".
National liberation and terrorism
The LTTE claims to be a national liberation movement and objects to being dubbed a terrorist organisation. One description does not necessarily invalidate the other. There can be a movement seeking national liberation that uses terrorism to achieve its aims. Even if one accepts the LTTE’s claim to be a liberation movement, it does not absolve the LTTE from the charge of being a terrorist organization. This charge is based on its record over two decades.
Among the thousands of non-military people it has killed, many of them in large-scale massacres, are a President and five ministers of Sri Lanka, including a presidential candidate and a Tamil who was Foreign Minister. It blinded in one eye and nearly killed a second President. It assassinated an Indian Prime Minister in Chennai. In most of these killings, many other civilians were also innocent victims.
National liberation: who qualifies?
If the LTTE achieves its goal, the state of Eelam would include sizeable Muslim and Sinhalese minorities. In 1981 Muslims were 18% of the population of the two provinces and Sinhalese 13% – both higher figures than the (at most) 12.7% of Sri Lanka’s population for whom the LTTE claims a separate state.
Would the LTTE accept the right of these minority groups to seek national liberation?
A hardline President?
Labels such as ‘hardline’ are useful to both journalists and their readers. They come in handy in identifying prominent traits or directions. There is a risk, however, that they continue to be used after they cease to be valid.
There may have been justification for using the label ‘hardline’ to describe a President who appeared to depend on support from the JVP and JHU, two parties with extreme views, to win Sri Lanka’s presidential election.
President Rajapakse has since shown he is prepared to move forward. For instance, he agreed to work with Norway as facilitator to engage the LTTE in talks. Ending the relationship with the Norwegians was a key demand of both the JVP and the JHU. After insisting that any talks with the Tigers must be held in an Asian venue, he agreed to the LTTE’s preferred choice, a venue in Europe. On the issue of transport for LTTE leaders from the east to travel to a meeting in the north, involving crossing territory under government control, he has shown great flexibility.
Six months after the election, surely President Rajapakse deserves to be judged by what he has done since he became President.
Sri Lanka and democracy
Sri Lanka has established its commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Its record of peaceful political change – changing governments through the ballot box — has few equals among the Third World countries born when empires ended.
It elected the world’s first woman Prime Minister in 1960. It has sustained democracy, surviving two brutal insurrections (by a revolutionary group now in the political mainstream) and an attempted coup d’etat by service and police top brass, and defending itself in a long civil war waged by a separatist group wedded to terrorism, the murder of civilians and the use of suicide bombers.
For a country at its level of income (below $1,200 per capita), its achievements in raising the quality of life and social well-being – in life expectancy, infant and maternal deaths, literacy, disease control – are recognised as remarkable worldwide.
Sri Lanka’s democracy has not been without blemish or imperfection. Threats to its survival and the relentless pressures of a civil war have at times strained its capacity to uphold human rights. Its armed forces have not always behaved with respect for the law. Under extreme pressure, even the best-trained soldiers sometimes fail to abide by the Queensbury rules, as events in Iraq have shown. In such instances the government has often been tardy in prosecuting offenders. It has also been accused of such crimes as the burning of Jaffna’s treasured public library.
Nevertheless, its resolve to abide by democratic principles, uphold the law and respect human rights remains undimmed. Sri Lanka has the right to expect that its struggle to protect the democratic rights of all its people will receive due recognition.
The current crisis
The past two months have seen tension steadily mounting. The LTTE has been continuously raising the ante, increasing the level of violence and provocation from claymore mine explosions to a suicide bomber’s attack on the Commander of the Sri Lankan Army to the attempt to sink a ship ferrying 700 troops.
It has been obvious that the LTTE is trying hard to provoke the Sinhalese to attack Tamil civilians in a repeat of July 1983 so that it could paint the Sinhalese as genocidal oppressors. The Tigers know that would be the only way to win back the world support that it has forfeited by its terrorism.
What may not be so obvious – but increasingly very likely – is that the Tigers could treat such a Sinhalese backlash in the south as the "right moment" for them to scrap the ceasefire agreement and return to full-scale war to try to claw back land area they have lost to government forces in the north and east. That includes the city of Jaffna.
The reaction of the international community, from Japan to India to the EU to the USA to the UN Secretary-General, is to appeal to both sides to resume talks – with a special appeal to Colombo not to be provoked into retaliation.
The Sri Lankan government has reacted only twice, first after the Army Commander was attacked in Colombo and second when Tiger boats attacked a ship with troops. Each time the retaliation was measured and of limited duration.
India, having once armed and trained the LTTE, has at least some responsibility for Sri Lanka’s present plight. Seeking to be recognised as a world power with a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, it shirks its responsibility as the regional power – and refuses to get involved.
The weak international response has emboldened the LTTE to become more and more arrogant. When the European peace monitors said the Tiger attack at sea was a "gross violation" of the ceasefire agreement, the Tigers had the effrontery to claim "sovereign rights" of "access to the adjacent sea and air space" and challenge the monitor’s right to pass judgement. It threatened it would not hesitate to attack vessels with unarmed monitors on board.
The international community is supposed to be waging a global war on terror. But a group that perfected the use of suicide bombers as a weapon of terror long before Al Quaeda was born is repeatedly allowed to thumb its nose at efforts to bring peace to Sri Lanka. Yet, media reports continue to treat the Tigers’ belligerence as reasonable and acceptable.
EPDP — Eelam People’s Democratic Party
EPRLF — Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front
JHU — Jathika Hela Urumaya (National Heritage)
JVP — Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front)
LTTE — Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
PLOTE — People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam